Q: My fellow teachers are really good at taking action when a colleague suffers a big loss or has a major life change. We celebrate weddings, births, and other life milestones with cakes and gifts, and we organize meals for grieving colleagues, but we fall short when it comes to demonstrating compassion for each other on a daily basis. Lord help the teacher who shows up late or leaves early once in a while, or who shirks a bus duty. Everyone is ready to report them to the powers that be, or to gossip about their irresponsibility or laziness. But no one knows what’s going on in anyone else’s life. On the flip side, when someone does something nice, like bake cookies for the staff lounge or put out snacks before a staff meeting, there’s always someone who will complain that the teacher violated the nut policy or never brings in anything healthy. How about a little less entitlement? How can we create a culture where we all cut each other a little slack and don’t pass judgment? We don’t have to act like hall monitors just because we work in a school. It really irks me that so many people are simultaneously nosy and lacking in compassion.
A: You’re right that it’s easier to do concrete acts of kindness than to feel or show genuine compassion. Consider all the possible barriers: People who go it alone and resist help are less likely to help others. Teachers won’t feel psychologically safe asking for assistance if they’re surrounded by judgmental colleagues. Even one person can sour an entire culture. When individuals feel overwhelmed or suffer a personal setback, they’re prone to compassion fatigue and resentment. On top of all that, people may define compassion differently.
So let’s start by defining compassion. According to Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, it’s the “awareness and recognition of suffering; a feeling of concern, care for, and connection to the one suffering; a desire to relieve their suffering; and a willingness to respond to their needs.” Compassion can be a tough sell because it involves taking on someone else’s pain, but it has a big upside. It enhances the giver’s psychological well-being and improves the well-being of anyone who witnesses it.
The question is, how can you change your school’s norms and values, cultivate self-compassion and connectivity, and convince staff that they’ll be happier if they’re supportive and forgiving? It’s easy to remember someone’s birthday, but hard to walk in someone else’s shoes. That teacher who shows up late periodically might have a two-hour commute, or be raising three kids on her own, or be suffering from an autoimmune disease flare-up. Sure, they might simply be lazy, but you can’t know their story if you go straight to judgment. Plus, when the tables are turned, they’ll be less likely to give you the benefit of the doubt.
As a first step, your principal could administer a survey with targeted questions, such as: “How do you define compassion among colleagues? What acts of compassion do you value? Are there any you don’t value? Is it important to you to work in a forgiving, mutually supportive environment? Do you feel that colleagues forgive each other’s mistakes? Do you have a hard time forgiving yourself when you make mistakes at work? Do you feel comfortable asking others for either emotional or logistical help when you’re overwhelmed? What do you see as the biggest barriers to compassion in our community? What do you think could help change the tide?”
Your principal would be flagging the problem, signaling that it’s important, and opening a dialogue about staff members’ shared norms and values. Once that groundwork has been laid, the school’s leadership team could present and discuss specific situations. For example, administrators might not view a teacher who regularly questions their initiatives as compassionate, but her colleagues might secretly appreciate that she speaks truth to power. That teacher might be the only one willing to express others’ concerns — to say, “Wait a minute, some voices haven’t been heard yet.” In this scenario, the leadership team might want to state explicitly that it’s OK to celebrate that kind of compassion. On a broader level, administrators can model forgiveness and self-compassion, discourage unhealthy competition, and remind staff that everyone is a multifaceted human being with foibles. They even could try a month-long “Kindness Challenge,” with everyone charting acts of compassion on a bulletin board.
It takes time to change a school’s culture, so start by examining your own behavior. That’s really all you can control anyway. Make sure you’re offering coworkers help when they struggle, getting to know your colleagues on a personal level, and refuting gossipy or critical statements when you hear them. You might say something like, “I really don’t think she’s blowing off bus duty — she’s usually responsible, so something must be going on. I’ll check in with her.” Make a point of greeting people and asking sincere questions about their weekend plans, families or hobbies. Solicit your colleagues’ ideas, cheer on their successes and acknowledge their strengths in front of colleagues. Act with integrity and don’t say anything that’s untrue, unkind or unnecessary. Be inclusive and collaborative, and ask questions rather than lob accusations. Be vocal about your own mistakes and forgive others’ shortcomings. In sum, treat others with the same compassion you hope to receive in kind. Here’s the good news: Emotional states are contagious and spread throughout an organization. You might be the one who gets that ball rolling.
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